Quite simply it doesn’t get any better than last night. This was the latest concert in a week to celebrate the 50th birthday of Chris Blackwell’s legendary label Island Records.
I consider myself privileged in managing to get on line and buy tickets to see Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens of course) for his one off performance to mark that birthday. Those that were, like me, lucky enough to be at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire last night experienced a magical, emotionally charged night that, frankly, I thought that I would never be able to see.
Turning the corner on the queue to get in we spotted Yusuf’s Roadsinger camper van parked out the front. It was a nice touch and brought home the fact we were about to see one of music’s true legends.
Of course, his legend extends beyond his rich catalogue of classic songs that he left behind when he quit the music business following his conversion to Islam in the mid seventies. He didn’t just move away on some passing whim. He has walked the walk and become something of an ambassador for his faith and has remained committed to his chosen path often inspiring many others in the process.
He has opened, and is still involved with, Islamia, an Islamic school in North London. His charity work, particularly with Small Kindness, reveals that he takes that particular pillar of Islam, Zakah, very seriously indeed.
Recently though he has felt the need to re-enter, albeit tentatively, the music business that he walked away from all those years ago. I guess the need to create music never really leaves someone this gifted.
He recently appeared live in concert in Los Angeles, his first performance in the United States for many, many years. I wonder if he played “Boots And Sand”? In case you don’t know the song it is about his being turned away by U.S. Immigration a few years back.
His reappearance is perfectly timed and his music can once again speak volumes in a world that doesn’t make any sense. Very often his chosen religion finds itself the centre of political tension as extremists abuse the name of Islam. The word means peace after all – and this is the man that hoped for the “Peace Train”. If only more people would climb aboard.
He often tells the story of the moment in his life whilst nearly drowning off Malibu Beach, at the height of his previous fame. He believes he was saved by God’s intervention when he cried out for help. It changed his life. He became Yusuf Islam, married into a Muslim family and raised his lovely family in the faith.
A couple of years back my wife bought me the studio album that marked his first real return to music. An Other Cup contained songs, some of which were written during his heyday, a rare cover track, and some new material. As soon as that first track “Midday (Avoid The City After Dark)” opened and I heard that voice the hairs on my neck and arms physically lifted.
It was great to have him back. The best part of course was that he was back on his own terms, in his own time, having escaped the madness of being one of the world’s most in demand performers and finding a true purpose in life.
Then came Yusuf’s Café a delightful live performance on DVD during which he performs wonderful versions of the old, “Father And Son”, “Peace Train”, “The Wind” and the new “The Beloved”, “There Is Peace”, and many more.
One of the most telling tracks on An Other Cup was his version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. Cat Stevens didn’t do covers, he didn’t have to, he wrote some of the most memorable music of his genre and of his generation.
This one though is different and it tells, through someone else’s words, just how his conversion and chosen path has been misunderstood over the years. Dare I say, he would have been hard pushed to write a more apt lyric.
Sure, he has made mistakes, who doesn’t? Finding himself pushed forward too early following his life change as some sort of ‘celebrity’ spokesman on all things Islam and theology was perhaps not his best move.
However, at the heart of all of this has been a maturing devotion to all things Islamic. The track “The Beloved”, from An Other Cup, is a good example and reveals his deeply held passion and belief, this time through his own words.
This year recently saw the release of Roadsinger (To Warm You Through The Night) his second album since his return. Again it strikes the emotional heart with some memorable music and intensely revealing lyrics. This is nothing new of course and his search for meaning and purpose can be traced back through those albums and songs that we know so well from so long ago.
“Be What You Must” doesn’t just talk to me, it positively shouts. “Welcome Home” tells of his walking into the mosque in Jerusalem having followed a sign saying 'all seekers this way'.
The title track “Roadsinger” is his journey through misunderstanding and finally being allowed to be seen as Yusuf rather than Cat Stevens, seventies icon, missed by so many.
That brings me to my main observation. Yusuf has finally emerged from his 'celebrity' withdrawal and is clearly a far happier and more contented man than the Cat of old. On the evidence of last night it is clear that, at last, people can accept the change. The addition of, the 'artist formerly known as Cat Stevens', finally seems redundant.
Last night was the pinnacle of my own particular musical journey. I have seen Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and many other true greats, giving truly great performances. However, this was, in many ways, something all together deeper. There was a tangible sense of joy, celebration, warm respect, admiration, all topped off with some highly charged emotion.
As he played “Be What You Must”, I found myself gulping loudly in a way I rarely do. A sudden wave of raw emotion simply crept up on me. When he sang “Where Do The Children Play” two ladies nearby openly wept and a tough looking guy in front had tears in his eyes.
Of course the purpose of a review is to report back on the concert itself. This magical evening was opened by Noxshi, Yusuf's son Yoriyos' band. When the next support band Baaba Maal took the stage for an hour of vibrant African music generated by a huge cast of musicians it signalled the start of a two hour journey that many who were there won’t forget.
Suddenly, to a great reception, Bono appeared, unannounced, to sing “One”. Such is the magnetism of the man that I didn’t initially notice that The Edge, Larry Jnr, and Adam were also up there and that the set had cleared for an impromptu U2 performance. Playing a nicely acoustic “Vertigo” rounded off a wonderful surprise in recognition of Island Records’ place in rock history.
It was Bono himself that introduced Yusuf who walked on the stage to the warmest reception I have experienced in a long time. Taking a standing centre stage position he started with “Welcome Home” and the scene was set for a ‘Maji-Yusuf’ night.
A nice moment saw him introduce his long term musical partner Alun Davies who provided his trademark acoustic accompaniment that is so much part of the old Cat sound. Memorable moment after memorable moment followed.
He played the classics masterfully spreading them throughout the set. “Where Do The Children Play”, “Just Another Night”, and “Peace Train” all made welcome appearances. Also performed were "Lilywhite", "Don't Be Shy", and "Ruins".
He gave us an excellent version of “Boots And Sand” the song about his being turned away from the U.S. “The Wind” saw him sitting stage right at a café table in a reflective mood. “Thinking ‘Bout You”, and “The Rain” also appeared from Roadsinger, which judging by the amount of people who knew the words, has sold quite well.
A lovely moment came when he played “Wild World” for his grandchildren in the balcony near us. That provoked one wag in the crowd to call for him to play “Grandfather & Son”. In fact, his connection with the audience between songs was also an endearing feature of the evening.
No Yusuf show would be complete without “Peace Train” of course. It is that ‘holy roller’ that Yusuf chose to board all those years ago. It led him along his spiritual path that has seen him visually morph into the person he really wanted to be.
His departure from the music scene left many fans stunned whilst secretly hoping he would quickly return from this ‘diversion’. He gave up so much, and had so much talent, at a time when he clearly still had so much to offer. The world was at his feet, musically, but he wanted something altogether more significant.
What we see today is the result of one man’s journey along the road to find out. Even the most die-hard fans can see, and most importantly, accept that now.
When that ‘little wave’ saved his life in the sea off Malibu he promised to work for God. Here he is back in the public glare having done precisely that for 30 odd years. His personal search became complete shortly after when his non-Muslim brother gave him a copy of the Holy Qu’ran.
Last night's warm and emotional reception proves that no matter how wild the world gets, people not only respect his music but also his own personally chosen path. Again the words to “Be What You Must” say it all, ‘I have journeyed endless miles, seen many harbours where I took rest a while, on this boat called near and far, to be what you must, you must give up what you are’. (Yusuf Islam)
The addition of the line, ‘though you travel many roads, there’s but one way and that’s the one you chose’ brings his wealth of life experience into sharp and valuable focus. This is, after all, a man who made precisely that choice.
By the time the concert was over and we were looking at his Roadsinger van still parked outside, I had all but forgotten that I had been fortunate enough to see U2 in a, for them at least, smallish venue. With the greatest respect and thanks to them, this was very much Yusuf’s night. After all, Bono said so himself during his affectionate introduction.
If I never see another concert again then, so be it. It was simply an honour to see this one. Thank you to Island Records for putting on such a show. Here's to another fifty years. Thank you also to the support bands for some excellent music. Thanks too to U2 for adding their class to the whole event. Most of all thank you to the Roadsinger himself, Yusuf, for coming back and warming us through the night.
Please visit Yusuf here at his official website. You can also catch up on his life through his Mountain Of Light site. Also please visit the Small Kindness charity website for details of a new 'song for peace' available for charity download. Yusuf along with Klaus Voormann perform George Harrison's "The Day The World Gets Round" – proceeds to The Small Kindness charity.